”We ask a lot of those who wear our uniform. We ask them to leave their loved ones, to travel great distances, to risk injury, even to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. They are dedicated. They are honorable. They represent the best of our country, and we are grateful.”
-George W. Bush
“To all our veterans and your families: thank you. There’s no tribute that can truly match the magnitude of your service and sacrifice. But all of us can do our best to live up to the American values of service, responsibility, generosity, and citizenship that you helped defend.”
At the end of the summer in 2004, the 186 Marines and Sailors assigned to Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, deployed from Madison, Wisconsin to central Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). As military reservists, they had earned the moniker “Citizen Warriors” and were a part of a critical component of the nation’s defense force. Each of them had joined the Navy or Marine Corps for various reasons, and over time the reasons they continued to serve evolved. Many had joined post 9/11, knowing their future would most likely include one or more deployments to far off lands in active defense of the country. They had not made the decision to deploy, nor was it up to them as to where, when, or for what reasons they would risk their lives on a daily basis for seven months inside a country that was not their own. No, that decision had been made by others as part of the larger processing of the Global War on Terror (GWOT) happening simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But they HAD made the decision to serve. Each of them, in signing an enlistment contract or taking a commission, effectually penned their signature to a social contract with their country and accepted a level of potential sacrifice up to and including the loss of their own lives. Yes, they did not choose a specific deployment, but they had chosen something arguably harder and certainly much more open-ended: to be ready for whatever was asked of them to do, whenever it was asked. And then at the time when their country needed them most, each of them answered the call with honor and without hesitation. Their service had direct and lasting impacts on the security of the country and allowed U.S. citizens to go on with their daily lives, impervious to the types of naked aggression routinely projected in and on many countries across the globe.
As important as it was that each of the individuals made the choice to serve in the way they did, what is more intriguing is the “why” they decided to serve. Today’s military is as diverse as the country it represents. Gender, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, socioeconomic status, and geography all are traits that show up very differently from person to person within the service. In the same way, the reasons why individuals decided to join the military to serve are varied and often unique to the individual. I have always been fascinated to hear someone who has served recount the why they chose to do so. Below is a sampling of some of the actual reasons I have heard directly:
I wanted to give back to my country.
My buddy was getting in, and he convinced me to join as well.
Nobody in my family had ever served and it seemed like the honorable thing to do.
I wanted to go to college, but I couldn’t pay for it….the military was my pathway to an education.
My grandfather, father and mother, and several aunts and uncles all served.
Perhaps the reason that rocked me back on my heels the most came when talking with Medal of Honor (MoH) recipient Leroy Petry, who deployed to Afghanistan AFTER losing his right hand in the firefight he was subsequently awarded the MoH for his actions in. When asked why he made the deployment to Afghanistan (which represented his 8th total deployment) after all of this occurred, his response? “I just didn’t feel like I had done enough yet.” Take a moment to let that soak in.
And the reason given that is most memorable to me came from a young Marine whose enlistment contract was supposed to end just prior to our unit deploying to Iraq. Instead of getting out, he “re-upped” just long enough to be able to deploy with the unit. This Marine had a fiancé and had recently found out that they would be expecting a child together. When I asked him why he chose to deploy, he asked back, “Sir, how could I let my friends go and not be with them in this?” I had no words (and a significant lump in my throat) upon hearing this.
My own initial reasons for joining the military still feel just a touch nebulous to me. To the best I can remember, I decided I wanted to go to the Naval Academy and serve shortly after moving to Norfolk, Virginia in the 5th grade. Perhaps it was because I was in proximity of the largest naval base in the world, or it could have been the number of kids I interacted with daily whose parents were part of the military. I do recall as well that there was something about the fact that I didn’t NEED to serve that made me WANT to serve. This part of my reasoning is hardest for me to explain clearly, as I can’t pinpoint why I felt that way at the time. I also believed even as a child that we very lucky to live in the country we did and that what we had was worth defending, no matter the cost. It is that last feeling that continued to grow even stronger in me throughout my adolescent and early adult years.
There are so many in our society who have served their country honorably through military service. In the following chapters, we will meet several of them. This book is dedicated to keeping the memories of all service members alive forever through the investigation of WHY they served. I hope that by more fully understanding their reasons, not only can we appreciate them better, but also that it will continue to provide an ongoing spark for others to make the choice to serve in the future.
Service to society obviously does not begin or end with military service. Senator John McCain, former prisoner of war and a true American hero, put words to this sentiment when he said: “Every day, people serve their neighbors and our nation in many different ways, from helping a child learn and easing the loneliness of those without a family to defending our freedom overseas. It is in this spirit of dedication to others and to our country that I believe service should be broadly and deeply encouraged.”
There are many ways that people can and do give back to their country in ways that make our society better every day. Police officers, firefighters, teachers, medical professionals, service volunteers, and other roles dedicated to helping people are all just some of the many examples of jobs that help the country be its very best for the citizens who inhabit it.
As a veteran, I am very thankful for the way our society learned from the shameful way we treated our Vietnam era veterans when they came home. Today’s veterans generally have the outward respect and thanks of a grateful society for their service. You can see this easily when you attend any professional sporting event as often will see multiple veterans thanked officially by the team and crowd for their service. But in ways that would be just as meaningful, my wish is that we would extend similar levels of gratitude and recognition to ALL those who serve this great country. You will see in the following chapters how the decision to serve in the military by the featured individuals often was just one of many decisions to serve they made throughout their lives.
I trust you will learn from the stories of these incredible individuals of Golf Company. I learned from them every day we were in service together, and I continue to learn from them. I learned from them what complete trust is. I learned from them how to believe in each other. I learned from them how to accomplish more than ever was thought possible. I learned from them a whole different level of comradery. And I learned from them what service was all about.
The one regret I have going into this is that I won’t be telling the individual story of each Golf Company Marine and Sailor. 186 chapters might be a bit much to take in and certainly would cut down on the quality of the output. In the following chapters, instead, you will be introduced to a representative cross-section of individuals from the unit and their families. Behind every great Marine or Sailor is an even greater family who has worked selflessly to create the type of support environment that allowed their loved one to operate at optimal levels. While not documenting the individual stories of every member Golf Company, taken in their totality, the stories you will read will provide a complete and holistic view of those associated with the unit.
I will freely acknowledge there have been many books written already that have recounted incredible stories of service, and one could rightfully challenge what more I possibly could offer to the sea of courageous tales already shared. While I would understand that sentiment, my strong counter is that THESE stories have not been told yet. I am excited, honored, and nervous to do so. This effort won’t be perfect, but prepare yourself to get to know some of the most honorable, dependable, inspirational people you will ever read about.
This is Why They Served.